Nancy Meyers | The Backlot Podcast | New York Film Academy

Hi I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode we bring you Oscar nominated writer producer director Nancy Meyers.

I mean I see movies you know like war movies and explosions and things and I you know I shoot people in kitchens. So I don’t know what I’m complaining about. So I don’t know how they do it.

For close to 40 years Nancy Meyers has been one of the most reliable successful and popular writers in Hollywood. She put Goldie Hawn in army fatigues in Private Benjamin and helped Diane Keaton learn there’s more to life than work in baby boom. At a time when female directors were all too scarce she helmed multiple blockbusters including What Women Want. Something’s gotta give. And it’s complicated. She is pretty amazing. But first and foremost she considers herself a writer even if everything tries to get in the way of putting words on the page.

It’s your job and because we don’t have a boss and we don’t have a timecard it’s still our job. You have to be disciplined. You just really. I’ve always been really disciplined. I worked today from about 10 to 7 and I you know every time the doorbell rang or whatever I got up and did what I should do but I come right back and you know I think you must be disciplined. It’s never going to get done but if you’re really trying to make your living as a writer I think it has to be really a serious. You know Callie Khouri who wrote Thelma and Louise I was having dinner with her a couple of months ago where she was writing something and I said I’m just starting writing I said how often you go online. She said every 10 seconds. And I said Me too it’s a real problem. There’s just so many blogs that I love it’s so hard. But you know something like Today I don’t think I even went on anything. I mean just sometimes you get into the work and but yeah the refrigerator is calling me at all times. Raspberry’s you know. Oh raspberries.

Raspberries are but one of the many distractions a writer can face. But Ms Meyers doesn’t let writer’s block get in the way of keeping the material going.

The last couple of days have been kind of stuck and I’ve just been staying at it. Sometimes I’ll get up take a walk I’ll sit outside feel the sun a little bit. I play tons of music when I’m writing. So sometimes what I’ll do is completely change the tempo of the song and I’ll see how it reads with different music and I’ll never play anything really really slow or sad or melancholy unless that’s the mood of the scene. But I will change the tempo you know I’ll do anything from. I was playing Jay Z and Fred Astaire at some point today with the same scene. I really was. You know sometimes or sometimes I’ll put on like a Cole Porter song because the rhythm of the music and the words is so beautiful and so great that I want to see if my rhythm can fit in with it. Like if that were the score it helps sometimes I’ll say wow. Too many words now and sometimes I’ll just test myself and see how many words I can take out. And still the line stays the same. And I write a lot of words and I’m like the talkiest writer. So.

For many years Nancy Meyers was part of a creative and personal team with director Charles Shyer they worked together on Baby Boom father of the bride and irreconcilable differences. They were a great team but she’s more than found her voice on her own.

I loved having a writing partner. I really did for that period of time that I did it and I really I liked it all the time I really did. It was just great to have somebody else in the room and somebody to pitch with. I’ve also really really liked writing alone. I think I’ve had sort of the best of both worlds. The great thing about writing with somebody is somebody there you can say something and you know we always said just say it. Bad say the bad version of it you know. So the other person says. All right. The bad version is she works at a whatever abd you go that’s really bad. You said say the bad version but you say OK but then you kind of see the good thing in the bad version of something now. And I like both I liked both I really did.

Before diving into Page 1 of a screenplay Miss Meyers will spend months outlining her work to any aspiring writers listening please listen to her advice.

I outline extensively I used to write with a partner I used to write with my ex-husband as you know. So we would toss things out pitche things back and forth and sort of just say whatever came to us. You know take a million notes turn the notes into little binders binders into sections. You know he was very into the little you know the little section dividers you know dialogue. And since I’ve been writing by myself and not having that person to go back and forth with I pretty much just do it on my own I just blab into my computer not literally it just this kind of blabbing you know maybe he’s this maybe she this what if this oh maybe it’s like that thing I saw when I was in you know and every little thing I think of goes into this thing and then I begin to shape that into an outline but the outline has everything in it has research it has dialogue and has the what ifs you know and it just contains an enormous amount of stuff so the outline can be 100 pages long which is kind of where I am now in what I’m working on the outlines well over 100 pages. I would never want anyone to see it. You’d think I was crazy. There’s just so much information in it you know even for me I have to go through it with a highlighter. Like what. Why am I saying this ten times you know it’s like so I’ll highlight it figure out what it is I’m trying to say. And now I’m at the stage where I have the big thick outline and I’m turning it into a screenplay. And and it’s it’s it’s fun in that now I have something you know I have all this work that I’ve done some of the ideas are good some are not so good. Sometimes I surprise myself with just some funny little thing I threw into a descriptive thing and I’ll say oh was that buried in there. That’s like the best thing on the page. And then other times it’s you know I write it and it it doesn’t work you know. So you find it. You just find it as you go. So first drafts will probably take me well the outline took me about three months. This draft will probably take me two months. I’m trying to do it really faster than I’ve ever done before. I I always take about four or five months to get a first draft takes me about six months generally with the outline and then another three or four five months to make that into something I could show people.

When writing its complicated starring Meryl Streep Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin Miss Meyers needed this expensive process to figure out what her movie was actually about.

I don’t always know what the idea is though because like on this movie I knew I wanted to write a movie about a woman who has an affair with her ex husband who is married to somebody younger. So for a while I would say a man’s cheating on his young wife with his own wife then it was more like a divorced woman starts to have an affair with her ex husband who’s married which is a big difference because one movie movie’s about him and one movie is about her and of course I want to make a movie about her. What do I care about him. So it wasn’t until I was really deep into it that it hit me I’m making a movie about a divorce movie making a movie about what it’s like to be divorced from somebody. What’s that experience like. Ten years after a divorce so. So that’s really the theme had I didn’t know that until I really got very deep maybe I was even making the movie when I realized that I’m not sure but that’s really what it ultimately was about that’s my. That was my experience when I was writing that movie that’s what I was thinking about. I think that weird relationship. You’re all too young. But the weird relationship you have with somebody that you were married to that you had kids with. It’s an ongoing hell.

Ms Meyers reminded our students that it’s crucial to never show material until it’s ready to be seen. No matter how impatient you get. You won’t get a second chance to make that first impression.

I wouldn’t show it to anybody until the end. You know I wouldn’t show it to the studio I wouldn’t hand it in. So it doesn’t really matter what draft it is because only I see it or a select. Group of people. That you know that I trust. I’ve heard people say I’m going to hand it in. They’re going to give me notes anyway. Bad idea. You make it as good as you possibly can make it before you hand it and you cover every single question that you have anything any of your friends told you and if you show it to a couple of people and they and a couple of people say the same thing to you you have a problem generally it’s like a focus group if a couple of people say well she’s so mean. Well then she’s coming off mean and it’s maybe something you should look at. But there are dates you have to have things in by if you’re being paid to write something you kind of have to make that date or near that date. But I mean do whatever you can. Work every minute of the day to get it in the best possible shape because they are only going to read at once. That’s it. They’re not going to read it again. I mean if you’re not being paid to write something. Then what’s the difference how long it takes. You know meaning that if they haven’t given you a date you have to have it in by but those dates are flexible. Nobody gets them in they don’t.

What sets Nancy Meyers movies apart from other Hollywood products is that she puts female characters front and center. By her estimation this actually makes it easier to get her movies made.

I’m an optimist. I see nobody’s doing this. There’s like people like me they want to make movies and like you as much as you like hangover. You know there’s not. I mean it’s a different kind of movie than going to a movie that has a woman in it or has some you know Kate Winslet story or Cameron’s story or some female story. So no no no I don’t worry about that. I think that’s a good thing. Look at bridesmaids and it’s so great. And I mean where’d all these women come from hello they want to go to the movies. In my case I didn’t direct a movie till I was in my 40s. So already I had made hit movies. I was a known commodity so they felt safe with me. I wasn’t your age setting out with a brand new script and trying it it’s hard. It’s hard. It’s hard. I know it’s hard and and people often ask me you know how do you do it. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know how you get started but it happens because they’re hiring tons of new people to do huge movies. You know somebody does a video and suddenly they’re directing you know a hundred million dollar movie. So. I don’t know how I’m the worst person to tell you how to get a movie into Sundance I’m clueless.

Her films might include upper class people living in beautifully designed homes finding love in the most unexpected ways. Just don’t call her movies wish fulfillment.

Wish fulfillment. I read that in a lot of reviews of my movies and architecture porn and all this stuff there’s nothing in the movie that you take away from that’s about that I don’t think you take away what you can relate to and the experience even if you’re young you’ve had an ex boyfriend or an ex girlfriend. You feel you’ve made a life mistake. You try to be daring one time or you smoke pot for the first time in 20 years or there’s something you can relate to being hurt trying to fall for somebody again opening yourself up to somebody again to me those are the take away things and that’s really what I’m writing about but I don’t forget that I’m making a movie. So as long as I’m going to like. You know build a house from Meryl Streep I’m going to build a nice one you know the movie is not going to be any better if she’s unemployed. You know and living in a in a different kind of an environment. And I think that’s kind of fun for the audience and it lets me. I think that kind of the superficial stuff allows me to write about things that other people don’t make movies about to me real things that are happening to women or people relationships.

After decades of writing and producing movies Miss Meyers took the plunge and began directing. But when asked about her preferences as a storyteller directing wasn’t one of them.

Because you have written directed and produced. Do you feel that there is one that you really love the most.

It wouldn’t be directing. So put that at the bottom. Producing is kind of a drag. You just have to do it. And so I would guess writing directing is just war like going to war every single day. That’s how I see it. I know you’re all dying to be directors. But. I think. Most directors would be honest with you. It’s a battle there’s some battle every day. Time money actors weather. Stuff just so much stuff happens every day you can’t believe it. And there’s a million people that want you to accomplish something that helps them right. So you know I just sort of put blinders on this is what I have to do today. This is what the scene is about. This is why I’m going to get. And when I see all those people with their hand signals telling me a million different things I pretty much just don’t see them. When I was just a producer like father of the bride all those movies that my husband directed I was the producer on. It’s easier than being a director and that’s for sure you know. But we worked for my husband my ex husband and I worked very closely together. And so I never felt stress free. I never felt like you know I can go out to dinner now. No. You know it was still what are we doing tomorrow and how are we going to get it and. You know it still deep in the blood so I never really have produced a movie that I didn’t write or you know where I’m distance from it. I would find it much more challenging to direct somebody else’s movie because I would always worry about the intent before I got there on the first day. I would grill the writer about everything I’d have the writer there because knowing what it’s about. It’s just like writing you know I can’t write a scene unless I know what it’s about. I can’t just start winging it and hope I find it. This is going to be a scene about and then I and I can write it. Same thing with directing I have to know what the goal is or it will get derailed and I’m not saying obviously brilliant directors Martin Scorsese doesn’t write his own movies I’m saying. For me it would be hard.

Nancy Meyers initially focused on writing and producing while raising her children. So for her directing debut The Parent Trap she took her children along for the ride.

Well I didn’t direct till. As I said I was in my 40s and I’d been making movies since my 20s. And that’s because I had two kids and. I produced and wrote movies always but I didn’t direct them because you know that’s just sort of the ultimate time suck and devotion that you have to have that. But I did direct a movie when I had an 11 year old. But you know what. I took her with me. I put her I gave her a part in the movie. She had no interest in acting. And I said you know I want you to be there because I was working with all these children her age and I didn’t want her to feel that I was you know favoring Lindsay or spending all this time with other kids her age so I said come on it’ll be fun. We’re going to go to Arrowhead and you’ll be in the camp scenes. And you know and then my older daughter became a P.A. on the movie. So for me that’s how I integrated it. You know I kept them close and I’ve always done that with my kids. I do believe that women tend to do two or three jobs all the time where men have the luxury of going to work. And we’re always sort of the juggling never stops. You know I mean I sent an email on the way here to my daughter who’s now 23. Did you go to the dermatologist yet. I mean you know a mother’s job it never ends. It just never ends. You know what it’s like when you’re directing a movie and you have little kids. It’s a lot so I don’t know. But my mantra’s you have to figure out what’s right for you. For me it was right at a certain point it wasn’t right any earlier than that. My kids always loved coming to the set. It was really fun. They didn’t really love the set that much they liked the trailer. And they liked the golf carts you know that they could ride. Being on the set and watching wasn’t that much fun.

Whatever. Hesitation Miss Meyers might have had about directing her films clearly show her skill with actors.

I think really good actors want direction. They don’t always act like they want to be directed. But I think they want to be directed. I think it’s actually I think everybody does. I was going to make some dumb analogy something like a less good actor don’t that’s not true. I think they all do. I think they all want direction and. I think. They really good ones have a magic to it. That I can’t give them. They come with that. But I think that the discussion that we have when I’m directing them and when I’m explaining something to them and how they take that in and then how they give that back to me is you know Nicholson and Streep and Keaton and Winslet you know they’re on another level that group they just are but they listen and they and they help you know they go from movie to movie from script to script to director to director. And the really good ones I think even though they can sometimes fight you or whatever they eventually want to they want to give you what you want they do. They’re not there doing their own version of the movie. They know that I have to make this thing work. I have to cut this together. This has to hang together and it’s shot completely out of order. And the really good ones like Jack you know he’s got three by five cards with all the beats of the scenes which is not even something I do. This is something he does. He breaks every scene down into beats. He’s got those cards in his pocket and between takes no really he’ll pull them out and he’ll look at the beats and he’s got them up but in his trailer on a bulletin board he knows the script backwards and forwards Keaton has got it memorized at the first table reading everyone else has their script out and she just like pretends to make everyone else not feel bad but she’s actually has memorized the entire script. They’re prepared Streep’s really always extremely prepared. She’s a very interesting person to watch and working with her. She’s she’s got such enormous range. As you know just enormous. So even if she starts some way and I prefer to come a little this way I mean she can get there and she just and she can bring stuff that you couldn’t come up with that she does on her own and then she can integrate your notes and just she’s wonderful and she can self direct sometimes so beautifully because sometimes I’ll be watching a take and I’ll think Gee I wish. And the next take I won’t say anything and the next takes she does it. She’ll also feel I could adjust that moment you know like she’s just incredibly smart and Nicholsons like available. You know what I mean. He’s just so available. He loves closeups. When you say we’re going to go in for the close up he lights up I mean you think are you kidding me. You’re Jack Nicholson you’re still excited when we get to do a closeup of you he says yes I am. He puts his eye drops and you know really into it he’s a wonder to watch. He’s scary but you know that’s because he’s so damn famous. You know when you first started to work with him you just sort of are. You know Meryl’s the same way and Diane was the same way when I first started she was Annie Hall for God’s sake. You know it’s like. There they are. But that all goes away by the end of the day it goes away almost. What good is it for me to not be honest with the actors. Doesn’t help them. They’re just going to be pissed at the end of the day if the movie doesn’t work. You know they read the script they say they want to be in it. I have to help get them there. I have to form this thing and make it work. And so whatever that piece of the puzzle is we’re doing that day often not always but some actors I’m not referring to Jack they’re really looking at their part right now. I have to look at the whole movie and how the scene fits with the scene before on the scene that comes after it. And yeah so that’s my objective you know so I for me to be intimidated by them would just serve nobody. And we all work for the movie. That’s how I see it. They don’t work for me I don’t work for them we work for the movie. I say I don’t like directing but the best part is when they’re acting truthfully you know once it’s set up and it’s lit and it’s decorated and their wardrobe is done and all that crap is all done and then they’re performing. That’s the fun.

Miss Meyers expressed her frustration that she seldom gets the time to rehearse with actors so she found a creative solution to get some much needed face time with her performers before production begins.

There’s never a rehearsal on movies no one’s ever around. No one’s ever around at the same time. And this movie Alec was on 30 Rock. Right up till we started shooting. So I had Meryl and Steve for a day. I had Krasinski for a day. I never have anybody on the holiday. No one was ever in town at the same time so I rehearsed with every single one of the actors with me doing all the other parts like me and Jude know it was like crazy. Me doing Cameron’s part and Jack and me and I’m doing Kate this is crazy. We never had anybody they’re never around. I don’t know anybody that gets a chance to rehearse anymore. The first time you really spend time with the actors other than general early meetings is once they’re hired you. One of the first things you do is you have wardrobe fittings with them and I think those wardrobe fittings are enormously valuable because you they start trying on clothes. Right. Like in this movie for example Meryl came to the first wardrobe fitting in a short wig. I didn’t say anything but I see she’s trying something out. You know let her that’s her perogative. Let her see how she looks she’s trying to find her character you know. And we tried on. Different things. Nothing was working. But what she wears in the opening scene of the movie is a white pair of pants and a white top that came out of that fitting and we all agreed that looks like Jane. Now we’re getting somewhere that looks like her well why does that look like her. You know so we start having this conversation. She came in the next day the next fitting another wig different length different color. Different thing we put the white outfit back on you know and she said no the hair is not right. And I said I don’t think so either. You know we just. So we start building that way. My first wardrobe fitting with Jack for Something’s Got To Give was six hours. He tried on one pair of pants. I’m not kidding he tried on one pair of pants. He just sat there and he smoked and we talked about character because he didn’t understand why the guy’s not in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. He’s at the beach. And you know that was kind of an interesting conversation. Why isn’t he in just shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. You know so you get to talk about the guy’s background and what the Hamptons means to him and that’s not really how people are dressing in the Hamptons and you know and you just sort of build and build and build and build. So I find that time super valuable and I have with everybody everybody I’ve ever worked with and then you know you just keep chatting. You just keep chatting. I’ve written letters phone calls go up to their house just try to grab as much time with them as I can before we start shooting because I think when you’re shooting is not the time to say where did she go to college. That is not the time we have too much work to do. So all that discussion you know comes before as much as possible. The opening scene of this movie Meryl’s and Alec it was the way they’re dressed. I wanted the audience to think they look like a couple because when you go out as a couple you tend to say well what are you wearing a suit. Are you wearing a jacket. You know you kind of you want to look like you’re going to the same place. So I dressed them kind of coordinated. So it’s very subtle but it’s a detail that I like you know and then the new wife has got some insane outfit on who looks completely weird and doesn’t look like she should be with anybody at that party is with this husband who’s in the nice navy jacket and khaki pants and so wardrobe tells the story. The sets tell the story I knew in Merrill’s house you know I wanted one big room because I think she had this house that wasn’t huge and she knocked down all the walls when she moved in there with her three kids after the divorce. And as much as I tried to make the kitchen look bad it apparently looks beautiful. But if you stood in the set you would say because Meryl came in one day and said could it look worse. So we added water damage and you know the knobs are kind of like cracked and falling. But this didn’t translate I didn’t do close ups of the water damage so it looked nice. But you really for a woman who’s a professional cook she really had very little. But those discussions go on endlessly.

You can tell you’re watching Nancy Meyers film by the attention paid to costume and production design she might not have the Avengers or a Decepticon in her films but she still makes sure they’re strikingly cinematic.

The holiday was quite hard to make but very enjoyable. The girls were so lovely they were like the two nicest people ever. But their schedules were such that I had to do a lot of traveling and kind of repeat and go back to sets I’d already usually once you’re finished with a set you get rid of it and you move on but I shot with Kate and then I have to come back in two months and shoot there with Cameron and hold the sets and it was difficult. It’s just kind of strenuous. And we went to England and we just hit snowstorm after snowstorm and everybody kept saying it never snows in England you won’t have any problem. The studio would be calling and I’d say it’s snowing. It’s snowing. What do you want me. I can’t show. That was hard but I mean I see movies you know like war movies and explosions and things and I mean I think you know I shoot people in kitchens so I don’t know what I’m complaining about. So I don’t know how they do it. Well like in the holiday. You know I had clear images that Cameron’s House should have an incredible kitchen that’s never been used kind of cool colors. You know it wasn’t going to. There was no color in there it was not warm at all and Kate moved and we put red flowers around and we started to warm it up a little bit. All that is predetermined and we don’t I don’t arrive on the day and say this would be good. Maybe we should have colored flowers here I mean that’s in an email that they get three months before shooting. I do think about those details. You know in something’s got to give. I drew the house. I drew the house just not the details of every piece of the house but I drew the layout of it all based on the scene when Jack comes out of his bedroom and she comes out of her bedroom they meet and go into the kitchen. So the fact that the doorways weren’t lined up still drives me crazy because in my drawing they were lined up. But I knew in that house I wanted the desk in her bedroom because I wanted her to have given up on love and. Bed and work can be in the same room. You know those kind of things that I think about.

This attention to detail is what makes her movies stand out and why she is one of the most successful female directors of all time. We want to thank Nancy Meyers for sharing her experiences with our students and thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated and produced by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As. Check out our youtube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson. Who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. Special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYFA.edu Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

 

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